If animals could indeed view their surroundings intellectually and talk to each other it’s entirely possible they’d discuss how screwed up human beings are especially in the ridiculous way we waste food. But hey to RJ (Bruce Willis) a wily raccoon what we throw away today becomes lunch tomorrow. He tries to impart some of this wisdom to his newfound friends--a motley crew lead by Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling)--after they wake up after a long winter’s nap and discover most of their natural habitat has been turned into a housing development separated by a very tall hedge. Yep these woodsy folk are sure in for an eye-opening adventure as the manipulative RJ convinces the gang to start collecting boxes of cheese doodles Girl Scout cookies and marshmallows telling them there is little to fear and everything to gain from their over-indulgent new neighbors. Now if they can only get rid of that cat... If you’re an actor these days the chances to play a serious Oscar-worthy role are just as great as playing a squirrel. Or a hedgehog. Or a guy called the Verminator. Over the Hedge has a fine slate of voices starting with Willis as RJ the raconteur raccoon whose pretty savvy to the ways of the paved and pre-packaged world of suburbia. Shandling is the heart of the film as the mild-mannered Verne who just wants to take care of his little woodland family. They include a couple of married-with-kids hedgehogs (pitch perfect Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara); a hyperactive but tender-hearted squirrel (a hilarious Steve Carell); an overdramatic possum (William Shatner playing it to the hilt) and his embarrassed teenage daughter (pop star Avril Lavigne); and a snarky skunk with attitude (Wanda Sykes who else?). As far as the humans Allison Janney voices a shrieking but vindictive homeowner while the Thomas Haden Church is said Verminator a fat balding but ruthless pest exterminator. What fun! Over the Hedge keeps to the spirit of the popular comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis on which the film is based. The strip focuses on the travails of friends RJ and Verne as they exploit the human world for their own personal gain while sardonically commenting on how messed up it is. Hedge sort of shows how these two might have met and is just a hoot from beginning to end. The images of woodland animal-meets-modern-day people are spot on: RJ’s spiel on how humans get food (“That’s the receptacle to get the food [a phone]...and that’s the tone when the food comes [the doorbell]”); SUVs (“Humans are slowly phasing out walking all together”); the skunk seducing the stupid cat (“I like your smell.”). The best is when Hammy the squirrel getting so hopped up on caffeinated soda the whole world comes to a stand still for him. Side-splitting stuff. Again success in animation comes when you stick with a simple story and create characters everyone can relate to. Plus hilarious dialogue. It’ll work every time.
As the Ice Age ends we meet Kenai a headstrong teenager anxiously waiting to receive his "totem" or symbol from the Great Spirits that will help guide him through life. His two older brothers Sitka and Denahi have really cool totems--an eagle and a wolf respectively--and Kenai is hoping to get something equally manly. Yet when Kenai is given a bear totem which represents love the young man is humiliated and he vents his frustrations by charging after a bear that's stolen a basket of fish. His brothers rush to stop him and the ensuing battle with the bear ends in tragedy: Sitka dies trying to save Kenai and the grief-stricken younger brother vows to hunt the fleeing animal down in revenge. Just as Kenai catches and kills the bear the Great Spirits start their fun transforming Kenai into a bear and telling him that to become human again he must find the place where "the lights touch the mountain." Kenai a very reluctant bear sets out on his quest picking up a traveling companion--an oh-so-cute bear cub named Koda--who knows the way. Kenai begins to see the world through the bear's eyes and as he gains respect for the animal he finds the true meaning of his totem. Imagine that. It's a formulaic story but somewhat enjoyable and certainly no kid will find fault with it.
Despite thematic similarities Brother Bear is no Ice Age. While both films succeed in conveying a heartwarming message about man and nature during prehistoric times Ice Age is full of clever dialogue and witty banter giving stars such as Ray Romano and John Leguizamo a chance to shine as animated characters. Brother Bear's dialogue sounds more preachy and Saturday morning cartoonish which leaves the voice cast very little to work with--including the Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix as Kenai; Bernie Mac's Jeremy Suarez as little Koda and D.B. Sweeney as Sitka. The saving graces at least for the parents in the audience are Rutt and Tuke a pair of wisecracking moose. Voiced by old friends and SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas the moose performances recall brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie a hilarious pair of Canadian brewery workers Moranis and Thomas immortalized on SCTV (and in film too--remember the 1983 Strange Brew?). Of course Rutt and Tuke are a slightly modified version of the McKenzie brothers since they don't actually wear down jackets drink copious amounts of beer or complain about the hosers of the world eh? Still you can tell pros Moranis and Thomas had fun as their moose counterparts commenting on whichever situation they happen to find themselves in. Pay particular attention to their banter as they catch a ride on the backs of some traveling woolly mammoths.
Disney's Brother Bear animators use all their handy little tricks to paint a rugged and spectacularly beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape but Bear ultimately comes off as another commercial Mouse House product made to generate Christmas merchandising bucks. You get the feeling these guys can do this stuff in their sleep and you suspect they probably did. Even the original songs which usually stand out in a Disney film seem fresh off the assembly line. Singer-songwriter Phil Collins penned six brand new songs for this movie including the main theme song "Great Spirits " but they all seem to hearken back the formula he used in the Academy Award-winning "You'll Be in My Heart" from 1999's animated Tarzan--similar rhythms same basic tune if a little easier on the bongo drums. This is the Pacific Northwest after all not the African jungle.